Why does the words pub, button, public all pronounced with an "ah" instead of "oo"?

Since there's a "u" there it looks like it can be read pooblic, bootton (or even byutton), poob but it's pronounced as if the "u" was an "a", why?

  • 1
    Because they’re all short u’s not long. And ah is not how i’d describe that sound anyway. “ah” is the sound in father and bother “uh” is the sound in “other” and “mother” as well as *pub, button, and public”. But the best way to write these sounds is with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet
    – Jim
    Sep 12, 2016 at 7:27
  • Compare mat with mutt. The sounds are distinctly different.
    – kasfme
    Sep 12, 2016 at 7:28
  • I pronounce them as if the U was a U, not all accents have the same attributes.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 12, 2016 at 8:28
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    Maybe if you are from Liverpool you would say "poob".
    – GEdgar
    Sep 12, 2016 at 12:34
  • 3
    @kuhaku: the problem (and the reason that you need to use something like IPA to talk sensibly about it in print) is that different accents don't just pronounce vowels differently, they don't all make the same distinctions. To me "met" and "mat" are completely different, and I cannot imagine confusing them. I have noticed that many foreigners are taught to pronounce "mat" with a vowel much closer to "met" (this partly reflects a now obsolete high-prestige pronunciation in British English). For some Americans, "cot" and "caught" sound the same, but for many Brits, "caught" and "court" do so.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 12, 2016 at 18:59

1 Answer 1


In most varieties of English (but not the Midlands and North of England), the historical "short u" (/ʊ/) changed a few centuries ago to an unrounded mid-low central vowel /ʌ/ or in some varieties /ə/ in most, but not all words. Like many of the sound shifts in English, this was after much of English spelling was established.

So in most of the UK (and elsewhere) "pub" is /pʌb/, but in the Midlands and the North it is still /pʊb/.

The exceptions are mostly words with a labial consonant - p,b,f,m (eg 'pull', 'bull', 'full', 'mush'), but not always. Note particularly 'put' and 'putt', which are homophones in the North, but elsewhere are /pʊt/ and /pʌt/ respectively.

  • It amuses me that broadcasters often refer to "the Poonjab". It's my understanding that the region is actually called the Panjab, but presumably the English transliteration (Punjab) dates from a time when British administrators in India spoke with a strong RP accent! Sep 12, 2016 at 8:25
  • I don't know this linguistic language... Does it sound like the Greek letters? i.e /ʌ/ = alpha, /ʊ/ = omega?
    – shinzou
    Sep 12, 2016 at 13:41
  • These are symbols in IPA (see Jim's comment for a link). I explained in another comment why it is pretty well essential to use IPA or something like it in this kind of discussion. The symbols come from many places, including Greek, but I don't think Greek is involved in those two. /ʊ/ is a sort of weak relative of /u/ (not as rounded, not as far forward, not as tense). I don't know where the symbol /ʌ/ came from: perhaps from 'A'.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 12, 2016 at 19:03
  • @KateBunting: I believe you're right; except that the original pronunciation I think is with /ə/ rather than /ʌ/, so there is no meaningful way of writing it in English orthography then or now (since /ə/ is never stressed in English).
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 12, 2016 at 19:08

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